Sometimes, what we hang onto undoes us; sometimes, it's what we cast away. In either case, advice from outsiders is of limited use at best. That's the thorny truth of two contemporary musicals on the regional stage.
Though the area has seen them before, it's fair to call both revivals unexpected. N.C. Theatre presents Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt's Pulitzer-winning 2008 drama, Next to Normal, after two productions staged within six months of each other in the 2012/13 season left it arguably overexposed.
And in January of this year, Raleigh Little Theatre announced that Hedwig and the Angry Inch would replace a planned production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson because of concerns about its treatment of Native Americans. Though it's been seven years, longtime theatergoers likely remember C. Glen Matthews' carnivorous take on Hedwig from when his Raleigh Ensemble Players last performed it at the legendary Raleigh gay nightclub Legends.
When we get to the third or fourth local iteration of a musical, proof of concept may not be required—but proof of necessity definitely is. What can we see in these works that wasn't covered in earlier iterations? Why should a repeat take a slot that newer works could fill? Both questions were on my mind as I took in two shows that I've savored in their previous excursions.
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH faded from pop culture after its 1998 off-Broadway premiere and 2001 film adaptation, but a production originally starring Neil Patrick Harris that took the 2014 Tony Award for best revival of a musical is still running after recently finishing its first year on Broadway. Still, that remount is one rewrite beyond the original version at Raleigh Little Theatre. That, more than random walk-outs or irate front-row ticket-holders who get lightly misted during one rock-and-roll exploit, is the greatest difficulty this production faces.
I can't fault Chris Maxwell's voice or his go-for-broke performance, under Jesse Gephart's direction, as the "internationally ignored song stylist" at the center of John Cameron Mitchell's script. And Lydia D. Kinton's glowering Yitzhak convincingly counters the abuse he receives at Hedwig's hands—before show-stopping takes on "The Long Grift" and "Midnight Radio," both of which got standing ovations.
Though the basket of earplugs available to patrons before the production was an encouraging sign, music director Craig Johnson's band remained on leash for most of the show, and rarely, if ever, gave us need to use them.
But the holes and broken threads in Mitchell's script are really starting to resemble Hedwig's fishnets. On one hand, it condenses the title character's complicated origins and dilemmas, and then hints at future prospects, in a little more than 90 minutes. It's an enviable feat when compared to traditional two- to three-hour Broadway marathons.
But that ruthless efficiency comes at a cost. Relationships, on stage and off, go largely unexplored. Hedwig's time with Sgt. Luther largely falls into a black hole between their first encounters and separation. Key incidents and character developments are abbreviated, elided in some lyrics, or skipped over entirely. And when the crucial hinge that turns an abusive Hedwig toward a reconciliation with Yitzhak remains a mostly unarticulated mystery, we're not stumbling over an economy of expression, but cut corners in the script. And should I be confused, in the final scene, whether Maxwell is playing Hedwig, her bête noire and ex-lover Tommy Gnosis (who he also performs), or some hybrid of the two?
This fourth time out makes plain the distance between the dots Mitchell forces us to connect. It's hard to say if that's a particular fault of this production, or just repeated exposure to a text's fundamental strengths and weaknesses.
But Stephen Trask's multi-genre soundtrack holds up, from the punky opener "Tear Me Down" and countrified "Sugar Daddy" to the pensive, literally Platonic "Origin of Love." Also credit Johnson with not succumbing to the pop-music tendencies of "Wig in a Box." The version here has more soul, ache and depth to it than I've ever heard before.
The question of balance is central in NEXT TO NORMAL. Diana (Lauren Kennedy), a housewife, bravely attempts to maintain a busy household and lifestyle while struggling with her psychiatric diagnosis of bipolar disorder with delusional episodes—hallucinations the musical seamlessly presents as real.
But the imbalance in her moods as Diana undergoes a series of changes in medication threatens the balance of almost everyone else on stage, including husband Dan (Charlie Pollock), daughter Natalie (a game English Bernhardt) and Natalie's boyfriend, Henry (Ben Fankhauser).
We hear their struggles most clearly in Natalie's austere, poignant anthem of overachievement, "Everything Else," Diana's heartbreaking love song, "I Dreamed a Dance," and "There's a World," the rejoinder by her son, Gabe (Mike Schwitter).
But a different type of balance—between the singers and Nancy Whelan's band—caused difficulties on this production's opening night. Sound designers Eric Alexander Collins and Brian L. Hunt were still calibrating levels that left vocalists buried and lyrics not always intelligible, including in the crucial, expositional "Just Another Day," among many others. Only the solos and quieter songs came through without trouble.
We savored light designer Charlie Morrison's technical coups de theatre at strategic points, but under Casey Hushion's direction, we questioned Pollock's emotional range as Dan. Kennedy's work as Diana was unsurprisingly solid, as was Schwitter's turn as her enigmatic son, in a production which, unfortunately, reminded us that understanding characters starts with being able to make out their words.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Thrice-told tales"